I have been a practicing Buddhist for several years now, which basically means I meditate. I try to do it every day but sometimes I go for weeks without sitting. Sometimes I try to clear my mind, as it were, and sometimes I try to concentrate on a particular problem or issue, to find the root of it. Sometimes I simply follow my breath, sometimes I let my mind wander just to see where it goes.
I sat this morning for the first time in a little while, and found myself feeling pangs of doubt. What was I doing this for again? What was my goal? Did I really believe that I would one day experience satori – a flash of enlightenment – and live out the remainder of my days as a bodhisattva? Is it any more realistic for me to expect such a thing than it is for a Christian to wait for the return of Christ?
It seems appropriate, at this time of year when we are making resolutions with our fingers crossed behind our backs, to think about the concepts of progress and planning. For those who don’t know much about Buddhism, it is essentially a philosophy of empiricism. There are no articles of faith; when asked if there was a god, Buddha remained silent, because there was no empirical proof one way or the other.
Nor is there dogma in Buddhism. There are multiple interpretations of Buddha’s teachings, but no one goes to war over them. There are rules, especially for the clergy, but the rules are framed as precepts that guide us to choosing the right action in any given situation, which in turn leads to good karma – the best possible outcome of our choices.
Given the importance of karma in Buddhism, one might expect us to constantly be looking ahead as if we were chess players, always evaluating the “game” and making adjustments; but in truth, we are constantly admonished to be “present” or “mindful” of what is happening here and now, not dwelling on the past or the future. Now is all that matters.
This seems hard to reconcile with the Western mindset (or for that matter the modern Eastern one), where we are admonished by experts for not saving enough, not planning for the future enough. But in truth, the experts are simply trying to awaken us to the choices we make now. Eat well and exercise now to avoid cancer later. Control your debt now to avoid bankruptcy later. Concentrate on your studies now to have a good job later.
If we’re not careful, these resolutions can seem like impossible dreams, and so we might give up on them before we even start. We don’t like to defer pleasure. We want to be rewarded, or at least comforted, now. Of course, the comfort we feel can be an illusion, or at least very temporary, and we find ourselves needing another “hit” of pleasure before we can start taking those actions that will create our new, happier future. Another blog entry, tweet, hour of gaming, comic, orgasm, whatever.
I think that sometimes we feel, deep down, the way that an addict feels when they can’t stop themselves from taking another drink or doing another line. We stand outside of ourselves and watch it happen, feeling powerless, disassociating ourselves from that stranger who is wasting his life. We might try to trick ourselves into new behaviours – if I run every day this week, I can have cheesecake on Sunday! – only to find after a while, the bribe no longer works. It’s not enough, or it isn’t fun, or some other “obstacle” has appeared.
The problem with focusing on the future is that the future is intimidating. No matter how strong our resolve at the moment, no matter how good our intentions, the future is like a sheer cliff face and we are standing at the bottom with no climbing gear except our bare hands.
The present, on the other hand, is easy to live in. As the old soap commercials used to say, you’re soaking in it. Snap your fingers: there goes another moment of the now, and you lived through it without any negative outcome. This is why meditators are told to follow their breath: to have the experience, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, or week, or lifetime, of simply living.